As far as I understand, neuropsychology gains most of its insights from the reconciliation of lesions of the brain and cognitive impairments. Normal functioning (both of the brain and the mind) plays a less important role in neuropsychology.

My question is:

Which role does cognitive high-performance play in neuropsychology? Are there attempts to map cognitive high-performance processes to neurophysiological structures and processes? Some examples would be great.

Examples of cognitive high-performance:

The mere fact that for such high-performers there are possibly enlarged (and internally more strongly and probably more specifically connected) areas of the brain (and connections between them) is not what I am looking for. Especially for the more mathematical and intricate cases there must be more than that.

The main difference between neuropsycholgy by impairment and neuropsychology by high-performance seems to be that in the former case you can more easily perform statistical studies (but also single-case studies), in the latter case you can only perform single-case studies.


1 Answer 1


The short answer to your question is that, yes, you are correct. "Cognitive high performance" is a much smaller part of classic neuropsychology than the study of brain damage. There are studies of the topics that you mention from a cognitive neuroscience perspective (e.g., a study by Krawczyk et al. (2011) which does neuroimaging of chess experts). Some cases such as eidetic memory are disputed, so most of the science has focused on that. "The exceptional brain" is a classic book on "special talents" and neuropsychology, but it is pretty old now.

I don't completely agree with your final point. Extremely good and extremely poor performance can both be studied with single cases OR group studies, but for the latter you obviously need to find multiple people with similar behaviour which is hard for both classic neuropsychology (e.g., selective agnosias) and for special talents.

Some definitions of neuropsychology specifically refer to brain damage and deficits, so in that sense your point is trivially true. Some, or perhaps most, people studying patients are partly motivated by helping people who have problems, and so studying high achievers might be less useful. We have quite a good understanding of some syndromes because of their reasonably high frequency and many decades of research (e.g., Neglect, Balints, Ataxias, Aphasias). I think you could make the argument that the behaviour demonstrated in these cases is not just "less than" normal but qualitatively different. Most people can play chess, improve their memory and memorize long numbers, particularly with training. So it is easier to see those with "special talents" as just the extreme end of a continuum which could be studied with typical people.

Lastly, you might be interested in looking at work with autism which I think is a good example of something where people have looked at both the negative aspects and the (potential) advantages.

Krawczyk, D. C., Boggan, A. L., McClelland, M. M., & Bartlett, J. C. (2011). The neural organization of perception in chess experts. Neuroscience letters, 499(2), 64-69. [PDF]
Obler, L. K., & Fein, D. E. (1988). The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities. Guilford Press.


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